The Amazing Alan Turing

Published on Sunday, June 24, 2012 in ,

Jon Callas' picture of the Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park100 years ago this weekend, on July 23, 1912, a remarkable man by the name of Alan Turing was born.

He made several amazing breakthroughs, many of which affect the way we live still today. His life story is not only astounding, but tragic, as well.

If you talk to people who are already familiar with Alan Turing's work, there are two topics that are guaranteed to come up almost immediately.

The first is his work in helping to decode the complex codes used by Germany in World War II. They used a machine called the Enigma. It encoded letters, much like a simple substitution cipher, but done in a way that the letters substituted for any given letter could change throughout the code.

Regular Grey Matters readers will be familiar with James Grime, who regular lectures on the history and use of the Enigma machine. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth, he has made the following video:

The other topic that comes to mind from Alan Turing's life is the Turing Test, which is basically a standardized way of determining whether a computer could truly be considered to have intelligence. Ian Watson's video, The Turing Test, explains the concept in more detail:

The common thread through all of his work was a fascination with the human mind. What was its nature? What were the processes and potential? That's why so much of his work was related to computers.

Even though the first electronic computers weren't developed until the 1940s, Alan Turing was already writing about programming machines step by step, and even storing those programs in the mid-1930s! In the “Giant Brains” episode of the documentary The Machine That Changed The World, from about the 42:40 mark onwards, you can learn more about his incredible contributions to computer science.

In his later works, he even focused on biology. If you go back to my Iteration, Feedback, and Change: Chaos Theory post and watch The Secret Life of Chaos video there, from the 3:21 mark to the 15:30 mark, you'll learn about how his work on ectogenesis, specifically dealing with the process of identical cells becoming different tissues, influenced much of modern chaos theory.

If you're interested in more details about his life, you can find 2 excellent feature-length videos about Alan Turing. First, there's The Strange Life and Death of Dr Turing (Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here), a 1992 Horizon documentary. The other is Breaking the Code: Biography of Alan Turing, a dramatized depiction of his life from 1996.

Looking through these resources, you'll find repeated mentions of his suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple. His mother never accepted the suicide claim, and recent research is beginning to support her beliefs.

On the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's death, Google created a custom doodle in his honor, based on the machine concept that had originally brought him notoriety among mathematicians. Even though it's no longer posted, you can still find it in the Google Doodle archives here.

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